The estranged wife of an Escondido man who prosecutors said was a Mexican Mafia gang member running a criminal enterprise involving several North County gangs has pleaded guilty to conspiracy. The plea in federal court from Angelina Chavez-Espudo came in late May, four months after local and federal authorities arrested 108 people ---- including Chavez-Espudo among four dozen arrested in North County ---- all of whom authorities said were connected to a massive drug and firearms trafficking ring. Chavez-Espudo, 49, is married to Rudy Espudo, who federal prosecutors said controlled drug dealers from various gangs and taxed them on behalf of the Mexican Mafia in North County, according to prosecutors. The gangs include several Escondido, Fallbrook and San Marcos-based organizations, prosecutors said. Authorities also said that, under Espudo, gang members smuggled drugs into the county-run Vista Detention Center and sold them for the Mexican Mafia, punished opponents and relayed orders with ease to and from the outside. The Mexican Mafia, also known as La Eme (Spanish for the letter "M"), is a relatively small cabal of about 200 members, one of whom was Espudo, prosecutors said. That small faction runs a larger network of associates, soldiers and facilitators. The indictment in Espudo's case is replete with discussions about "taxes" or "rent" gang members paid to Espudo. In some cases, prosecutors said in the indictment, Espudo's associates demanded monthly tribute from local gangs, who would be threatened and assessed with late fees if the payments were tardy. The Espudo couple was estranged and living separately when each was arrested in January as part of the largest sweep of local gangs in recent memory. The sweep consisted of coordinated operations, including Operation Notorious County in North County, and Operation Carnalismo and Operation 12-Step in central and southern San Diego County, officials said. During an 18-month investigation, authorities said they seized more than 14 pounds of methamphetamine, more than 250 grams of heroin and 4 ounces of cocaine, along with several guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition. In addition, they took body armor, five vehicles, Rolex watches, several designer purses, a diamond ring and two homes ---- and more than $150,000 in cash, authorities said. One of the indictments arising from the investigation focused on Espudo and the operations prosecutors say he ran. Forty people were charged in that indictment, and as of Friday, four of the defendants, including his wife, had pleaded guilty. All were charged with conspiracy under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Conviction under the act can carry a potential sentence from no time behind bars to life in prison. Chavez-Espudo's plea deal leaves her sentence at the discretion of the judge, but shields her from any future charges arising in the case, Pippins said. According to the indictment, Chavez-Espudo spoke to people in the organization on behalf of Espudo while he was behind bars, and her words were considered as if Espudo himself were saying them. Chavez-Espudo essentially acted as a messenger for her husband, passing on information from him to others in the organization when he was behind bars, according to her defense attorney, Victor Pippins. He said his client's level of involvement in criminal activity was not substantial, that it was based solely on her relationship with her husband. "I do feel that she was put into a situation that led her to where she is (behind bars in legal trouble)," Pippins said Friday. "Her relationship is the beginning and the end of her involvement in this case." The couple had been married for 10 years and had no children, Pippins said. He said that, at the time her her arrest, Chavez-Espudo was a homeowner with a normal office job where she had worked for a number of years. As far as testifying against her husband, Pippins said Chavez-Espudo could be compelled to testify to some issues, but some spousal communications are protected. Such testimony is not part of the agreement. Her sentencing is set for late August. Each of the three others who pleaded guilty to a role in the conspiracy are scheduled to be sentenced in July. No trial date has been set for her estranged husband, but he is due in court for a motion hearing in early July.
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